Driving To Bolivia
I arrived in Lima at 5 a.m. from Denver, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ecstatic to see my friends. They’d left months earlier for their Overlanding adventure. Kim and Aaron brought me to their hostel where I was reunited with Ramona The Rig and Greg, the German shepherd. Our single-night in Lima commenced immediately with ceviche and Pisco sours — so many Pisco sours.
After dinner we drifted through a cliffside park overlooking the ocean to see the sunset and then headed down to Plaza Mayor, the main square, to absorb some of the city.
Overlanding is described as self-reliant, over land travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal.
From the cliffside, Lima looks like Southern California, but entering the musky depths of the city was transportive. We drank more Pisco sours at a speakeasy, which was a magic realm with bookcases of leather bound books, cigar-smoking men and unlabeled glass bottles of liquor behind a green-lit bar.
We ate dessert in an old train car and bought cheap friendship bracelets from a cryptic young man who also sold Kim some questionable cocaine. Eventually we made it back to Ramona where I spent my first, of many nights, nestled snuggly in the camper with my travel companions.
It was Day Two and we were headed south for Paracas, a small seaside town and a national reserve, which has been called “the poor man’s Galapagos”, to see sea lions, penguins and a plethora of other aquatic life. We arrived at the hostel in the evening, slept in Ramona which was parked in the dirt parking lot and then boarded a boat early the next morning for a wildlife-watching tour. The vibe was carefree and light, with no inkling that, in the very near future, we would be trapped at the Peruvian border, held against our will; the collateral part of a protest.
The stretch after Paracas was the lengthy, elevation-gaining leg to Cusco. We climbed from sea level to 12,800 ft that day and camped in the driveway of, what we fondly refer to as, Vicuna Lodge. The thin, cold air startled our lungs. It was a run down building at the top of a very winding, desolate mountain pass.
At dusk Aaron’s clutch foot had grown weary, so we decided to pull off for the night. The structure was more horror-movie version of the term hostel and a far cry from the cheerily painted backpackers hostels we’d parked at on the beaten path the previous evenings.
We were greeted by two young Peruvian men who were extremely curious about us and our lumbering house on wheels. They told us we were welcome to park there for the night and were eager to practice speaking English with us. In the morning they invited us to see the museum that was on the grounds. To my great taxidermy-loving delight this contained a myriad of stuffed animals and birds along with photographs of the region’s wildlife, consisting mainly of llamas and their smaller, more delicate relative, the vicuna. To complete the tour we were led into a field where the live versions of the adorable animals were grazing. We thanked our hosts profusely and hit the road.
Ah, the road, a main character in my South American experience. We had a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time to do it in. Aaron, being the great sport that he is, clocked in a ton of driving hours each day in order to make sure we stayed on schedule. Kim and I entertained, making playlists of 90’s favorites and books on tape. We played road trip games in between frequent stops at tolls and being pulled over often by the local Policia.
CUIDADO! The very American-looking vehicle was an obvious target for “tickets”, but the appearance of our barking German shepherd at the rolled down window sent us back on our way quickly.
After braving more extremely winding mountain passes in the dark under a light mist, barely dodging tour buses and semis flying around steep bends in our lane, we decided it was, again, time to call it a night. We crept down a heavily-jungled dirt road in complete darkness where there was allegedly a bed and breakfast awaiting. Eventually we found it and made it to a level-enough parking area in their yard. We were met by the hostel owners, a friendly couple and their even friendlier dog named Pisco, who happily humped anything with a pulse.
In the morning we woke to a most breathtaking mountainside; multi-colored terraces blanketed with gauzy layers of fog in front of snowy peaks. Bright greens against red dirt, purple and orange fields of quinoa. We ate a breakfast of fresh white cheese, avocado, scrambled eggs and coca tea. Then, were off again, ready to reach Cusco.
This was one of the most beautiful, lush drives I’ve been on, with adorable “domesticated” animals along the roadside. We saw a long-haired pig; take a moment to let that sink in. In addition there were baby goats, more pigs, sheep, cows, horses and tons of llamas and vicunas.
We made it to Cusco, the city made famous for being the port to Machu Picchu. There’s not much to say about Machu Picchu that you haven’t heard. It was beautiful, awe-inspiring and being enjoyed by many, many people. With our tight itinerary we’d passed on the three-day Incan Trail excursion and took the busses up from Aguas Calientes along with the masses.
There were 3,000 people there the day we visited and during peak-season there are 6,000 daily visitors to Machu Picchu. There’s an element of the experience that feels a little like adult Disneyland, but it’s breathtaking and majestic all the same. I would have been sorely disappointed had I been expecting some type of spiritual communion with the ancient ruins. I imagine this is similar to seeing the pyramids not surrounded by oceans of desert sand, but cityscape.
The next stop was the Bolivian salt flats, also known as The Salar. With about a week remaining before I needed to be in Santa Cruz to fly home, we had to move quickly. We decided to cross the border into Bolivia at Lake Titicaca so that we could swing by Copacabana on our way out of Peru. We were winding our way along the lakefront, just a few miles from the Bolivian border when we came upon a telephone pole in the road. It was being moved by a group of Overlanders along with a squad of Peruvian Police. We didn’t think much of it, a seemingly isolated incident, and continued on.
A couple of miles up the road we were stopped again behind a long line of parked vehicles, mostly semis and tour busses. We were remarking on the truck we’d just seen drive buy full of Polica with rifles. Aaron went to investigate and learned that the villagers were staging a protest in response to the Peruvian government putting in another silver mine, that would essentially wipe out their village, and were offering no type of compensation. Fair enough. A protest I would definitely get behind, except that there I was, experiencing it in real-time, less enthused without American comfort and safety.
We investigated alternate routes, but there really were none and by this time the other end of the road, the one we had come in on, was blocked as well. The police squad came and went and it became evident that we were stuck. Since we’d embraced, “The Party is Where You Park It,” mentality, we made some Palomas and sat atop Ramona for a better view of the situation.
We were friendly with other travelers, some real characters, a man on a motorcycle from Texas and bus load of Dutch tourists. After a couple of drinks, Kim and I decided to do what any adventurers barricaded in a protest would do, don bathing suits and jump into the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca.
In retrospect it probably wasn’t the healthiest choice considering the toxins being released into the lake from mining. Nor was it the culturally or socially sensitive choice with the protestors present, but at the time it seemed like a making lemonade from lemons situation. Now it looks like bratty Americans refusing to take seriously anything outside of their itinerary. Overlanding very much feels like an insular sub-culture of travelers seeing the world on their terms from the comfort of their vehicles.
Before disappearing for the evening, the Policia said the protesters would quiet down and leave for the night and we would be able to leave then. Night fell and quite the opposite ensued. More and more villagers poured in to strengthen the barricades, huge thirty-foot fires were built. No one was going anywhere. Shit had become real and a little bit of fear finally broke in. Our plan was to check periodically throughout the night to see if the protestors had grown tired and gone home or passed out. At 5 a.m. the protest was still going strong. We decided we needed to go.
We got in Ramona and headed back to the southern barricade that was keeping us from Bolivia. We were met by angry, seemingly very-intoxicated people who began spitting at us and hitting our vehicle with heavy sticks and poles, demanding that we turn around. We did so quickly and took a dirt road through the tiny village that we had found the day before, narrowly squeaking through between crumbling structures. The only way out was to get back on the highway and try the barricade to the north, where we had entered, but protestors had set up four more barricades during the night.
The three of us had been keeping our cool, trying not to panic, but an anxious tension was stirring. The situational claustrophobia paired with the fact that we had no one to call for help (they had an emergency sat phone, but we couldn’t see the U.S. embassy jetting over to help us) was sinking in. With telephone poles and huge piles of rock in the road, along with broken glass and nails, it was impossible to just plow through even with our 4-wheel drive set-up.
The rocky terrain on one side and lake on the other wouldn’t permit us to go around. The protestors on this side of the barricade were less angry, so we decided to try reasoning with them. We weren’t angry with the indigenous people or unsupportive of their protest, we just didn’t want to be in the middle of it. Entrapment calloused the part of my brain where moral righteousness lives. I felt bad for these people, but worse for myself.
I came up with the idea that Aaron should tell them that his “wife,” was pregnant and needed to get to a hospital. He bravely got out and negotiated with them and surprisingly, the story worked, they let us pass. A mile down the road we came to another blockade — Aaron once again got out and negotiated — this went on three more times, each time a little tenser than the last, until we reached the last, main barricade to the north. These men were not having our story and told us we couldn’t cross. The street was littered with broken glass and we were tired, hungry and severely over it. One of the men felt bad for us and told Aaron there was a dirt road a little way back that would provide a detour. Exhausted of options, we thanked him and turned around again.
We found the “road” and took it. We had barely gotten going when an irate, old woman (anywhere from 50 to 85 years-old) blocked our way. Aaron got out to talk with her. She began to approach us, picking up large rocks as she did. She was the fiercest old woman any of us remembered encountering and the last obstacle standing between us and sweet escape.
Somehow he convinced her to let us through and hearts pounding, we drove fast down the road, which would supposedly lead us to a different Bolivian border crossing. We immediately got a flat from a large shard of glass we’d driven over, but eventually made it. After paying for visas (United States citizens are required to pay $60ish, all other countries are exempt) we entered Bolivia, which felt like a safe haven. Minus the tire, a dent in Ramona’s hood and frazzled nerves, we were unscathed.
Our first stop was La Paz, the highest capital in the world. It was breathtaking, a colonial city built into a giant hole in the ground. Winding through the mountains to get to this city is unreal. We paid to stay at a small Overlander rest stop that was connected to an upscale hotel. Other Overlanders were parked there from Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, a souped-up VW bus and a sleek truck and camper set-up with lots of custom alterations. The city was a safe place to recover from the trauma of southern Peru and to stock up for our trek into the salt flats.
Back on track to the Salar. The three of us were eager to reach Salar de Uyuni and relax for a couple of days. To reach the Salar we’d have to drive on a dirt road for about sixty miles, which is actually quite time consuming when going 10 mph. When we were almost there we discovered that Ramona was hemorrhaging brake fluid.
It slowly sunk in that we were in a remote part of Bolivia, the high desert, with no one around. Luckily there was one tiny town left on our way to the Salar, a tiny ray of hope. The town was seemingly deserted, save for a nice old man at the gas station, where we thankfully could get more diesel. He brought us to his friend’s house who was a “mechanic,” and he managed to seal off the brake line so that we were, at least no longer leaking fluid. We were off again sans rear brakes, but hey, we still had the front ones and were so close to the salt flats we could taste it in the air (ok that’s not true, but it sounded poetic).
The sun was beginning to sink, highlighting the beautifully severe Bolivian landscape. There were huge cacti everywhere and the beginnings of some white salt mixed in with the golden sand. We reached the top of a hill and were met with an unreal view of the Salar.
It’s an expansive sea of white salt peppered with islands, one of which we were planning to camp on. We were elated and made our way down the mountain and onto the salt. Since we were lucky enough to have our own vehicle we entered through the deserted northern entrance where the salt is flawless and looks like ice.
Tourists enter through the western entrance near Uyuni, which is a heavily traveled route where the salt is dull and brown. Here, there were no roads and it looked like you are driving on a frozen lake. We drove around enjoying the feeling of being on an alien planet. Aaron got Ramona up to 100mph at one point, and both Kim and I took turns doing donuts on the empty expanse of salt.
With sunset approaching we headed to an island and happily found it deserted. Just like that, we were the proud inhabitants of our own private island. Kim, being the gracious hostess-on-wheels that she is, grabbed cheese, bread and a bottle of red wine and the four of us, Greg included, climbed up the cactus covered mountain by our camp to watch the sun set on the Salar.
It was so spectacular we woke up at 5 a.m. to watch it rise. It gets cold on the Salar at night, so I was happy for my down jacket and hot coffee (thank you Aeropress and hand-grinder). Kim and I sat on the salt admiring the vivid rainbow of colors melting over the landscape while Aaron took photos for their blog.
Our last night on the Salar was, by far, the most ethereal. Full of laughter and mind-bending views in our unearthly surroundings, we reflected on the last ten days under a huge velvet sky. It was my favorite portion of the trip, although it is tough to choose just one. We’d built a fire earlier in the purple dusk and watched as the constellations sharpened in the dark.
We had to race up from the southern Salar to the northeast tip of Bolivia so I could make my flight back to Denver. Most of the drive flew by, but the scenery was unbelievable, the beginnings of deep, wet jungle filled with a myriad of tree species and flowering plants. Bolivia has an incredibly diverse and varying landscape. I flew out of Santa Cruz, which is on the edge of the rainforest. So close and yet so far, hopefully next time Bolivia!
* Please clap for more stories about the magical Bolivian Salar and the mysterious Peruvian Nazca lines.